What does it mean to be professional?

Published by Nela Dunato on at 11:52 in Business, Mindset

What does it mean to be professional?

Popular marketing advice for small business owners is to "be authentic and transparent" online. But some of us who may be careful about what we put out in public are asking ourselves the question:

Is too much authenticity unprofessional?

That's a valid question. After all, we grew up in a society that generally shuns authenticity like the plague, and showing our true self to the world feels extremely risky.

Some entrepreneurs are taking the authenticity road with a stride, and their blog and social media streams feature family snapshots, bountiful cursing and personal health information — things that would not sit well with our bosses in a corporate setting.

When we became business owners, our "bosses" became our clients. Now we want them to like us, because if they don't — they won't buy anything from us.

Here's where things get all tangled up.

If we were to think about every person on the planet as our potential buyer, we might as well never say, do or publish anything, because every single thing will offend someone.

That's why I emphasize so much the importance of identifying your right people (or ideal clients). We don't call them ideal for nothing. We want to pick and choose the people who are already likely to be interested in what we're selling, and appreciate our unique approach to business and life, so we don't have to be all awkward and maintain a facade.

We want to work with clients who share our core personal values.

As you might have realized already, professionalism is subject to people's opinion. If you happen to work with suit-and-tie corporate CEOs, their standards are going to be very different from what a small mom-and-pop business expects, and this is yet very different from what a rock band might expect.

Some may find discussing religion on their blogs distasteful, but for a designer specializing in Christian church websites, it makes sense to talk about Jesus on their blog. That way she insures that the priest or a pastor will realize she's not in it only for the money, and end up hiring her, instead of a heathen like me (who paints crucified fairies in her spare time).

Some people may think I'm crazy unprofessional for discussing depression openly, but I know a lot of my right people have experienced it as well, and I want them to know "Hey, I get you." If you're bothered by it, I'm sure you'll be able to find plenty of artists and designers who don't talk about their emotions at all.

There are less "musts" in professionalism than you may think

You must deliver what you promised, in the time-frame you promised. [Tweet this!]
In order to do that, you need to have an established process of creating the good or service that gives reliable results (before you can do that, you're a student, not a professional).

Your standards of integrity, honesty and respect need to be equal to or higher (if you're a bit of an ass) than those you maintain in your personal relationships.

Every "rule" of professionalism stems for that. For example:

  • Perform your work with the highest quality standards (integrity)
  • Quality test (integrity)
  • Reply to inquiries in a timely manner (respect)
  • Keep any information provided by the clients private (respect)
  • Send the buyer exactly what they ordered (integrity)
  • Publish clear images of your product (honesty)
  • Make it clear what is included in the price, and what is charged separately (honesty)
  • Don't spam people who aren't subscribed to your list (respect)

I'm sure you can extrapolate more of them for yourself.

But the way you dress, talk, walk and share your personality online is up to you and who you want to invite under your umbrella. Don't water yourself down for your clients.

Some people will see you, scream "Disgrace!" and run in the opposite direction. That's a great sign. If every single person you meet likes you, it means you're not remarkable – you're just fine.

If you're fine with being "fine" that's cool, but more often than not, "fine" doesn't pay the bills.

Decide for yourself what's professional

Are you addressing your clients by their first name, or last name and title?

Are you willing to share information about your illness when it causes a delay in the project?

Are you accepting phone calls, video calls or live meetings as a means of client communication? You're not obliged to do any of them, you know.

Are you sending holiday or birthday cards to your clients?

Are you giving discounts to new clients, repeat clients, on special occasions, or not at all?

Are you willing to share information and photos of yourself, your family or pets on your blog and social media?

Do you want every piece of business communication that leaves your office stamped with your logo? Just because I'm telling you it's a good idea because it helps in establishing your brand, it doesn't mean you're not allowed to have your own opinion about it. Of course you are.

Do you want to use your headshot or your logo as a profile picture on social media?

Do you want to use your headshot in your website header? Just because Marie Forleo or Ali Brown told you you should, you really don't have to.

Are you willing to do cold calls, e-mail pitches or send postcards to potential clients?

Will you add a business card or a flyer to the orders you send, or would you rather write a thank you note, or both?

Will you publish a price range for custom projects on the sales page, or do you want to hear the requirements first?

Do you want to write your opinions about politics, spirituality, health or other potentially touchy subjects?

It's your business.

You get to decide how you want to do it, and it will be much easier for you if you choose a way that's aligned with your personality.

It's best to think about this before you find yourself in a situation where you need to react. Set standards for yourself, and stick to them. If they don't work for you, change them. But do it consciously, and more importantly – make them clear to your clients.

That way you'll end up serving people who want exactly what you want to provide.

Nela

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps small service-based businesses create exceptional client experiences.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...


Your comments

  • Jamie Galley

    Jamie Galley
    2015-05-21 at 16:22

    Nela! This post is on-point. I agree with everything you shared about professionalism and how you version of professionalism is determined by your authenticity as well as your ideal customers' likes and expectations. Also, your painting "Crucify" is amazing!

  • Lindsey Anderson

    Lindsey Anderson
    2015-05-21 at 16:41

    Great points! Really it all boils down to performance and if you deliver what you promise.

  • Kimber

    Kimber
    2015-05-21 at 17:02

    I agree professionalism definitely varies person to person and the best biz is when the person is acting in full alignment with themselves.

  • Trista

    Trista
    2015-05-21 at 19:25

    How love your "rules" for being professional! This is the same as my list too. You can be professional being who you are as long as you approach your business with integrity. Thanks for sharing!

  • Lily Dagdag

    Lily Dagdag
    2015-05-21 at 22:37

    I think you make a great point about there being different definitions of professionalism depending on your business and your ideal clients. I've always said I love that I have clients to whom I can send minion stickers and they send them right back. Some people might think that's unprofessional but I (and my ideal clients) just think it's funny. I like being able to show my true self in my business because I think that's what sets me apart from all the other web designers out there.

  • Nela

    Nela
    2015-05-22 at 19:46

    Thank you all! I'm so glad to hear this post has struck a chord with so many other small business owners :)

    @Jamie: Thank you so much for your kind words! So glad to hear you like the painting :)

    @Kimber: That's the most important thing - full alignment! Great things happen when you're true to yourself.

    @Lily: Sharing little geeky things with your clients is a great way to foster a real human connection! Setting yourself apart is very important, and there's a place in this world for all of us :)

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